Writing the first comparative history of bastardy in 1980, Peter Laslett introduced the phenomenon by stating that it had been called a social problem for the last two centuries and a moral problem from time immemorial. In 1980, however, bastardy had long ceased to be a common term–in France, for example, it had been abandoned in 1793 during the Revolution. At the threshold of the twenty-first century, not only bastardy but also illegitimacy are words in rare use, which should serve as a reminder that these are legal, social, and cultural constructions. The most common definition of illegitimacy is to be born out of wedlock, but throughout history, the legal and social status of children in that position has changed. Differences can be found also between canon and secular law and between and within states and continents. The following contains a brief survey on some legal aspects, the main issue, however, being the social and cultural significance of illegitimacy in the Western world.

Levels of Illegitimacy

Giving a general overview of levels of illegitimacy is not easily done. As several authors have discussed, the disparity in definitions poses a problem and the reliability of the registration varies according to time as well as place. Nevertheless a few main tendencies have been established.

The rate of extramarital births during the sixteenth century is generally perceived to be quite high, but it later sank during the age of absolutism. It is stipulated that only 2 to 3 percent of all births in the mid-1700s were extramarital, but a century later numbers hovered between 7 and 11 percent in the Nordic countries and around 7 percent in France and England. Certain countries and regions had higher figures; in Iceland more than 14 percent of all births occurred outside of marriage, and in the Basque Country the illegitimacy rate was exceptionally high. The following century or so, from the 1840s to 1960, witnessed a new decline of illegitimate births, particularly conspicuous around the turn of the century. Regional differences, however, were still to be found.

Comparing western and northern European countries to those in the South and East, the overall pattern at the beginning of the twentieth century seems to be that the former had a lower level of illegitimacy than southern and eastern areas. In America it has been claimed that illegitimate births during colonial times were relatively rare, and that the ratio remained low at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, all slave children were considered illegitimate, and there were large disparities. In 1938, 11 percent of black children and only 3 percent of white were born by unwed mothers.

A high level of tolerance for extramarital births has been found to characterize some societies with high illegitimacy ratios. This tolerance can be connected with morals, religion, and culture but not least with economic conditions and household structures. Lola Valverde has explained the high portion of illegitimate births found in the Basque Country is explained by the lack of shame appending to such births and the fact that engagement was perceived as the same as marriage. Thus a legally illegitimate child could be socially legitimate. Further, irregular unions, as between priests and unmarried women, were widely accepted, and a father had economic responsibilities for his children even though he was not married to the mother.

On the other hand, abrupt economic changes and reduced means of livelihood have led to fewer marriages and an increase in the number of illegitimate births. The increase after 1750 has in some countries, though far from in all, been seen in this perspective.

Legal Status

Illegitimacy is connected with the parents' legal obligations toward their children not only with regard to maintenance but also to the right to family name and inheritance. Such rights have been limited, even quite absent in some places. Illegitimacy could also dictate the nature of the individual's relation to society. A career in the Roman Catholic Church for illegitimate children, for instance, was only feasible through papal dispensation, and a person of illegitimate birth had limited or no access to several guilds. However, there are no absolute rules, and stories of illegitimate heirs who managed to fight their way to European thrones are well known.

The criteria for being recognized as legitimate differed before and after Christianity, but according to canon law the status of illegitimate children changed if the parents married. This was the usual principle in the Nordic countries, but in England and Iceland, later in the United States, the principle was not immediately acknowledged. Furthermore, the Pope had the ability to change a child's status.

In many European countries, particularly Catholic ones, illegitimate births were first and foremost a matter for the church. The church and charitable institutions established several large ORPHANAGES in major cities, especially in southern Europe. However, the fact that many legitimately born children were also brought to these orphanages illustrates that problems of familial connections were not restricted to children born of unwed parents. In the Nordic countries illegitimate births were handled by the state and could lead to criminal persecution. In early modern times the persecution of unwed mothers especially became more severe.

Population Policies

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the question of illegitimacy versus legitimacy was closely linked with population policies. International rivalries combined with a decline in birthrates led several states to become interested in INFANT MORTALITY. Demographic statistics showed that mortality rates were far higher among illegitimate children than among those born within wedlock. Political leaders with a stronger interest in the power of the state than the morals of its population combined forces with philanthropists in order to better the conditions for illegitimate children. In some countries, such as Great Britain and Germany, experiences from World War I were decisive in making the issue a subject for debate at high political levels.

According to Edward R. Dickinson, radical feminists in Germany had argued for state maintenance and paternal contributions in addition to a right for the child to the father's name and limited inheritance since the turn of the century. German fathers already had a certain legal obligation to contribute economically, but more than half of them sought reprieve from these obligations. Furthermore, fathers were only obliged to pay until the child reached sixteen years of age, and the amount was to be in compliance with the mother's standard of living. Accordingly the children were more often than not raised in poverty with no means of receiving further education. All over Europe unwed mothers and their children faced similar problems.

New legislation was in Germany strongly opposed by Christian politicians in defense of family values and female sexual morality, and legal equality was in many countries long in coming. The disparities between culturally similar areas could be significant. A law giving illegitimate children the right to inheritance and name after the father was passed in Norway as early as in 1915, while legislation in Denmark and Sweden was based on principles of differentiation until the 1960s.

In Norway the economic rights appending to the legal ones were for a long period of time limited. The German state took a certain economic responsibility, while France appeared among the most liberal and generous states by placing a great deal of importance on equal rights for all children to welfare and health benefits. On the other hand, the legal rights of illegitimate children were especially limited in France.

Social Inclusion and Exclusion

The law and practice have not always been in sync with each other, and many children born out of wedlock were socially included within families and local communities: their parents married, their mothers married someone else, or the children were taken in by extended family. That leaves those children who were not integrated by family or local community. The size of this group has varied, but it has been large enough to ensure that illegitimacy throughout history has been connected with poverty, shame, and cultural exclusion from local communities. These children more often than others risked being abandoned in orphanages and institutions or becoming foster children. They were also put up for ADOPTION more often than other children when this became an option in several countries in the early twentieth century.

As the twentieth century advanced, the idea that a child belonged with its mother, married or unmarried, became gradually more dominant. The conflict between the mother as caretaker and the mother as breadwinner has nevertheless seemed particularly strong with unwed mothers, since in most countries they were granted economic support for their children much later than widows. The differentiation was based on moral judgments. Widows were regarded as worthy, unwed mothers as unworthy.

The intertwining of the legal, cultural, and economic aspects can be clearly identified in the Western world after 1960. The number of children born of unwed parents increased dramatically as public and private economies improved, public welfare programs were expanded, and the state inflicted economic responsibilities upon the fathers. Another vital factor was the increase in couples living together without being married. Legal equality has since then in most countries been established between children born within or out of wedlock, and the profound cultural, economic, gender, and social changes of Western society has made differentiating between children on the basis of their parents' marital status irrelevant.

The most disquieting feature in the early twenty-first century seems to be that children with single parents, whether born within or outside of wedlock, generally have a lower standard of living than children in a two-parent family. This is the situation in Europe as well as the United States.

See also: Children's Rights; Fertility Rates; Inheritance and Property; Law, Children and the.


Anderson, Michael, ed. 1996. British Population History from the Black Death to the Present Day. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dickinson, Edward Ross. 1996. The Politics of German Child Welfare from the Empire to the Federal Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Linda. 1994. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, Macmillan.

Hansen, Lars Ivar, ed. 2000. Family, Marriage and Property Devolution in the Middle Ages. Tromso §, Norway: University of Tromso§.

Henderson, John, and Richard Wall, eds. 1994. Poor Women and Children in the European Past. London and New York: Routledge.

Klaus, Alisa. 1993. Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press.

Laslett, Peter, Karla Osterveen, and Richard M. Smith, eds. 1980. Bastardy and Its Comparative History. London: Edward Arnold.

Lo§kke, Anne. 1998. Do § den i barndommen. Copenhagen, Denmark: Gyldendal.

Valverde, Lola. 1994. "Illegitimacy and the Abandonment of Children in the Basque Country, 1550-1800." In Poor Women and Children in the European Past, ed. John Henderson and Richard Wall. London and New York: Routledge.